Turmeric, sexuality and gender in the Polynesian Outliers: the changing meanings in Solomon Islands of a potent cosmetic substance

  • Turmeric (Curcuma domestica) was part of the package of domesticated plants that diffused into the Pacific islands with the spread of Lapita culture 3,000 years ago. In Polynesia, at least, the plant was primarily used as a cosmetic with potent cultural meanings connected to the notion of ‘mana’. If we focus on the Polynesian Outliers, we find that the plant was used mainly in the context of birth, death and marriage, but today the link to women’s sexuality before and after marriage has become turmeric’s primary signifier. This case study from Ontong Java atoll, Solomon Islands, will show how turmeric is now used by women as a ‘weapon of the weak’ in a context where they have become relatively marginalised, but where market commodities have given men new opportunities to display wealth and status.